SLIDER

Walking Camino de Santiago del norte

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Camino de Santiago del norte, The Northern Way, is a well trodden pilgrimage route, along northern Spain and as it turns out, 2017 is a holy year for it. Originally, pilgrims walked this route to reach a monastery but these days, people who enjoy walking take this route to see northern Spain and stop off to see and do things along the way. It's a bit of an adventure really.
I did a little section earlier this year, and spent four days exploring the route starting in Santandar and finishing at the monastery. Santander is a seaside town and reminded me a little of Brighton. We ate outside in the sunshine before taking a stroll the front with an ice cream and finishing up with a glass of cava at a beachside bar; My kind of afternoon!
Spain Ice Cream
Northern Spain Tapas
Over the next four days, from Santander, we walked a little along the coast through the Oyambre national park. With beautiful green landscapes and a lovely stretch of very quite beach, I really enjoyed walking this part before we headed inland. There we visited a cave, El Soplao, although that's not really my style so I spent that hour outside in the sunshine. We also got a cable car to the top and explored picos de europa mountain range.
 Spain Cable Car
Of course there was also lots of food along the way. Cantabria is full of local culinary delights and as usual, I wanted to try them all. We ate Cocido montañés which was the perfect hearty lunch after a morning exploring in the cold!
Cocido montañés
spain food
My favourite stop of the trip had to be Potes; the cute little cobbled town that we reached just before our final stop. The old town was a lovely place to spend the morning wandering around I just love a town with a river running right through it. A very pretty place!
Our trip finished at the monastery. We walked through the door of forgiveness, as pilgrims had come to do in the past, and once inside was able to see the Lígnum Crucis. This metal cross houses the largest surviving piece of the cross that Jesus was crucified on.
 After chatting with the priest, we took a group selfie to celebrate the end of our trip!
*Thanks to The Spanish Tourism Board for hosting me.

Halong bay on cristina diamond cruise

Monday, 7 August 2017

It’s kind of impossible to go to Vietnam and not hear about Halong Bay. Located in the north, 4 hours drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay consists of almost 2000 limestone islands and it’s pretty incredible. It'll probably be the priciest expense on your trip to Vietnam (it definitely was on mine) but it is worth paying for!

You can go for one, two or three days trip but it's a long drive there and back so overnight is recommended. With so many different boats, choosing one online was turning into a bit of a nightmare; they all looked exactly the same but the prices were completely different so in the end, I emailed the hostel that I had booked for Hanoi and asked for their help. They sent me some options at different prices and I picked the 2 night, 3 day Cristina Diamond Cruise which they went ahead and booked for me. Shout out to Nexy!

Our three day cruise cost $255 each which admittedly, was quite a lot (I opted for the luxury boat, come on - lady of luxury at heart remember? plus it was the only one with (terrible) wifi) although that included everything from the three hour transfer there and back, two nights on the boat, all meals and all entrance fees; we only had to pay extra for drinks which were actually very expensive for Vietnam; were talking $1 bottles of water (which really isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things.) 
Halong Bay Cruise
Cristina Diamond Halong
Day 1
We locked our bags away in the luggage room at the hostel and waited in reception to be picked up with just our overnight bags and all of the extra Pringles and Oreos that I'd bought as a precaution. A minibus came to get us at 7.45am and along with about 15 other people we began our journey to Halong. After a tourist trap toilet stop, we were checking into our rooms on the boat by 11.30. Our twin room was a little bit old but it was clean and it was comfortable - I would have been upset if they were any nicer because we hardly spent any time in there at all. We had a big window, a rusty balcony and a very modern bathroom complete with products. 

After dumping our bags down, the first order of the day was a buffet lunch in the restaurant as the cruise got going. The food wasn't incredible but it wasn't bad and there was more than enough of it. I didn’t touch my snacks!
Halong Bay Food
The first stop was to visit a pearl farm. I had read that this was a big waste of time and another tourist trap but actually, we took a 45 minute ride on a bamboo row boat to get there. We then spent 10 minutes watching how they make the pearls (this was actually really interesting) and spent less than 5 minutes walking through the shop to get back on the tender and then went straight to a beach so not a waste of time at all.
We were welcomed back on board with a ‘sunset party‘ on the top deck which involved some (free) wine and juice, some fresh fruit and some mini matcha cupcakes which I ate far too many of. It was all very romantic and on the first night there were a lot of couples which made me start to actually miss Andrew 12 days into my trip (sorry Andrew) but it varies because the next night was full of groups of friends.
Dinner was at 6.45pm back in the dining room and afterwards we spend the rest of the evening chatting to Tugen, the bar man who was the same age as us. I always find it fascinating talking to locals about their life in the country; he was super smiley and sounded like he loved working on a boat. After a little bit of unsuccessful squid fishing we headed to bed and were gently rocked to sleep. I always sleep so peacefully on water.

Day 2
The mornings start with 6.45am Tai Chi on the top deck so I left Nathan asleep in the room and went up to have a go. After 15 minutes of waving our arms around in the air; trying to follow the Tai Chi master, I went back down to the restaurant to meet Nathan for breakfast - I had a couple of scrambled eggs whilst he went a little bit more adventurous and had a pho.
 Then it was time to split from the two day cruisers. They went off to see a cave (what we would be doing on our third day) whilst we waited on the main boat for our day boat to come and pick us up.  There was only one other couple who had booked the three day trip like we had so we near enough had a private tour which was absolutely incredible. This second day we got a proper experience of Halong Bay so I would completely recommend booking the three day trip.
The day started with an hour of sailing in the sunshine. There wasn’t another tourist boat in sight all day, it really did feel like we were the only ones there and it was so peaceful. We lost all track of time and had started drinking beer before anyone realised that it was actually only 9am.

In between sailing, we stopped off to explore a deserted cave and go out fishing with a couple of local fishermen - they took us out in a tiny wooden boat that they had somehow put a motor in and were controlling it with a hook on a piece of string and a branch, it was quite the experience!
That was actually a replacement activity since the government banned both kayaking and swimming just a few days earlier. No one could tell us why but luckily we were more than happy to relax on the boat instead. With an on board BBQ for lunch and a nap on the sun deck, we returned back to the main boat at around about 5pm feeling totally refreshed and just in time for the sunset party again.
Whilst we were away, they had offloaded the two day cruisers that we originally got on with and loaded up with another group. Then we started again with the sunset party up on the deck followed by dinner. This time they prepared a different meal for the four of us so we ended up spending all day and all night with our new friends! Luckily we got on pretty well and ended up spending the rest of the night at the dinner table drinking cocktails.
Day 3
Again, my morning started with Tai Chi on the deck followed by breakfast and now it was our turn to visit the first cave from yesterday. I actually decided to stay on the beach instead as it was super crowded and it was making me feel a bit ill. Still, they came out 20 minutes later and it was time to get back on the boat and check out of our rooms. We had a spring roll making lesson (yeah it really is as easy as it looks) before our last lunch on board and the long drive back to Ha Noi.

Summertime in the Austrian alps

Monday, 31 July 2017

Apart from ice skating, winter sports really aren't my kind of thing. I've never even been skiing and to be honest, being cold on holiday just isn't my style so the Alps wouldn't usually be my first choice when it comes to holiday destinations.

Saying that, I have been invited to visit Austria in July both this year (to Styria with Thomson Lakes & Mountains) and last (to Lech) and I have discovered that during the summer months, there's much more to the Alps than the snow topped mountains and skiing down them. Whilst I'm not the most outdoorsy person - you guys should know you this by now; Austria in the summer gives way to some gentle adventure. The opportunity to get out there and see the mountains without it being a stressful and exhausting expedition means I am able to take in the scenery and actually enjoy my experience of a place.
austria cow selfie
My recent trip was just a few weeks ago and I really enjoyed my time there! So what sort of things are there to do? Here were some of my favourites:

Take A Gentle, Guided Hike
Our hike was more of an enjoyable walk with beautiful scenery. We walked up to and around the Black Lake in Sölktäler Nature Park, before stopped off for tea and cake but more on that later. This was a great route for our group because there was a stony path for us to walk on for most of it so we were able to enjoy the scenery rather that spending the whole morning looking down at where we were stepping.

With no signal it's easy to disconnect from the rest of the world; and with such breathtaking scenery, I didn't even miss my twitter feed for a few hours. Just the seven of us, the sound of the waterfalls and lots of cows wandering around as they pleased.
Indulge In Alpine Treats
As I said, once we had finished our walk it was time for tea and cake. We had many tea breaks over the four day trip so I have come to the conclusion that this is a very popular pass time in Austria! Austrian food isn't something that I come across all to often in London but as always, I love to try local food so if it wasn't tea and krapfen (mountain doughnuts) for elevensies, then it was trout caught in the lake, Tiroler Kasspressknoedel (gooey, cheesy dumplings) and lots of Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes with fruit compote and my number one).
Zip Line Down A Mountain
Ziplining was another one of those things that I hadn't done before and this one I was absolutely petrified of. When you pay, you are given a backpack thing which actually turns into your harness; we took these with us on the bus up to the top of the mountain and put them on ourselves when we got there. It was a little nerve wracking but the staff checked us over before attaching it to the line. Next thing I knew, I was speeding down the side of a mountain at 120 kilometers per hour. After I got past the fear of essentially jumping off the side of a mountain, what I thought was going to be an adrenaline inducing roller coaster turned out to be really peaceful, serene and calming experience.
E-biking
 Normal bike riding is also an option and there were alot of people doing it but when you are riding said bike up the side of a mountain, then that little extra push from the e-bike is going to be much appreciated; and anyway, I said gentle exercise didn't I? I hadn't ridden a bike for years and I was a bit worried at the start but with a guide on hand, I was fine! There are lots of stunning views to see along the way and once you get started, there is the promise of lunch and hot chocolate when you get to the top.
alpine hot chocolate
MOUNTAIN BIKE RIDING AUSTRIA
The Ice Palace
After lunch at the top of that mountain, we caught the cable car right up to the glacier at the top. There was lots of adventurous stuff to do up there like walk along a wobbly wire bridge and standing at the bottom of the stairway to nothingness (very eeary ion the cloudy day that we were there) but I preferred The Ice Palace which we discovered once we had gotten inside the glacier itself. The floors were frozen so we were slipping and sliding everywhere but that all added to the fun. Inside, were intricate ice sculptures all lit up with different coloured lights!
smile austria
ice palace austria
*Big thanks to Thomson Mountains & Lakes for hosting me on this trip.

Other Austria Posts:

Town house 373 Hostel, Ho Chi Minh City

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

I  did a hell of a lot of research for my recent trip to Vietnam. I've been to Asia before but always though a travel agent so booking this trip by myself was a big thing. I knew that I was going to be a long way from home, very hot and very tired so it was pretty important that I picked places that I could come back to relax after a long day. I didn't want the stress of being unhappy with where I was staying ruining my trip. 

Whilst most of these things are a given when you book a nice hotel, it was especially important to me with my anxiety and OCD, that my accommodation was clean and safe; and good A/C was a bonus. Our hostel in Ho Chi Minh City was particularly important because it was going to be the first hostel we stayed at in Vietnam and the place we would go to having come off of a very long flight. I picked Town house 373 which was part of three town house hostels in HCMC.
With a 9.1 rating on hostel world, Town houses 373 seemed like a good choice. They helped with booking my airport transfer and we arrived at around 7.30am. Reception was bright, spacious and as soon as I entered, I felt totally at ease to leave my bags there in reception which is very odd for me. They continued to make us feel safe throughout - I was very pleased to see that they had a padlock on the door each night which they had to open for us to get in.
 
Although it is located down an alley way, a lot of places in HCMC were, it was the perfect location for me as it was close to the backpacker district but it was on a different street so it was very peaceful. Whilst at first I was a little worried about how far down the alleyway it was; after I walked down it on my own for the first time, I realised that alleys here are not like alleys in London and it was totally fine, there were other hostel and shops the whole way down.
The room was my biggest shock and that was in a good way. As we opened the door, we were hit with cool air. The photos on Hostelworld look a tad bit digitally created so I wasnt 100% sure whether to believe them but surprisingly, it looked exactly the same. Again it was very light with white walls and a blue stripe design behind the wall mounted TV. Yes, there was a TV; and a safe. Amazing. 

We paid $90 for three nights in a private twin en suite room ($15 / £11 per person per night) but were upgraded to a private triple room so there was loads of space. The beds themselves were quite hard but I actually prefer that when it's not my own bed - I'd also say that these were actually the cleanest of the trip with not a stain in sight.

The room came with a daily free bottle of water each, a complementary large and small towel and was cleaned daily - just like a hotel! The bathroom was also equipped with shower gel, shampoo and toothbrushes.
It was pretty perfect for what I wanted but I thought I better mentioned the bad points here. These things didn't bother us in the slightest but I guess it's worth mentioning. There wasn't a lift so we had to carry our stuff up two flights of stairs and the A/C was great but it was loud although that was nothing a pair of ear plugs couldn't fix - apart from that, it was actually very quiet at night time.

Lastly our shower leaked so the bathroom floor did get quite wet but as I said, it was cleaned daily and I brought shower flip flops so it didn't make a difference to me.

The wifi was fast and the breakfast was great with a selection of fruit including bananas, many of which we took out on with us for the day plus they did freshly cooked eggs. There was also a fridge with the cheapest water that we found in the whole of our stay; a small bottle there cost 5,000 VND which translates to 17p.

This hostel wasn't social at all but that was just what I was looking for. There was always someone to welcome you at reception but apart from that, there was hardly anyone around. For me, it was the perfect place to come back to after an exhausting day exploring the crazy city outside.

More Vietnam Posts: 
Two week Vietnam itinerary
Cruising Halong Bay 

Things to know for your first time shopping in Marrakech Souks

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The souks in Marrakech are unlike anywhere I've ever been to in my life. They were an absolutely incredible experience for me and something I can now tick off of my bucket list. Twisty roads and little alleys full of stalls with canopies hanging over the top; it was quite a culture shock but what an experience! I wrote about how magical it was (here) but there are also a few things that I think it is important to be aware of, just because it's magical doesn't mean it doesn't have its flaws. Here are some of my tips for your first visit! 
Hire an official guide
As soon as you go in, you'll see why; it's very overwhelming and a bit of a culture shock so I was so glad we had Sami with us otherwise we would have never found out way out of there! Apart from not getting lost, whilst he was guiding us though labyrinth of little alleys, he stopped off to show us a traditional clay oven hidden behind one of the souks and was able to answer all of our questions along the way. We also found that with him with us, we got hassled far less than when we went back to the square on our own a few days later.
Wear the right clothes
..Saying that I did get groped whilst we were all trailing behind him. I knew dressing appropriately in Morocco was more important than any where I have been to in the past, especially in the souks so I was prepared but I still couldn't believe how bold the men were. I had a culotte jumpsuit on, one that I wear for work sometimes but it was hot, obviously, so I took my jacket off and had my shoulders on show. On two separate occasions guys grabbed my butt as they walked past. The first time it was more of a brushed hand so I wasn't sure but after a full cheek grab the second time, I decided I'd better just put my jacket on. What a difference that made, the rest of our visit was absolutely fine.
You'll Need Cash
As with all markets, its helpful to have cash on you. We got ours outside of the market as there are no cash points once you enter the madness.
It Has A Particular Smell
Before I visited, I read that some of the leather goods can smell so you should sniff them before you purchase, what I didn't expect was to turn a corner and be able to tell that there was a leather stall before I could see it. The hide is soaked in animal excrement to help the dyes stick and even though it is all washed off, the end product is still seriously potent; all part of the experience though!
Shopkeepers Can Be Persistent
The souks in Marrakech aren't your relaxed day at the market, be prepared to be pestered at every stall you walk past. Either avoid eye contact and totally ignore them or say no thank you firmly and they should leave you alone. Once you show an interest in something it's a lot harder to get rid of them, I had one guy follow me quite a long way away from his stall trying to sell me scarf that I was looking at. If you do want to purchase something then haggle! They expect it and nothing has a set price so it is very easy to get what you want for less than half of the original asking price. 

Whilst that is the case for alot, some were totally chilled out; I spotted one guy alseep on the floor in this shop. It was all very strange. 
Take Hand Sanitizer
I've never really been a germophobe but after an afternoon in the market, I wanted to wash my hands. This is especially important if you plan to visit the food stalls in Jemaa El Fna where there will be nowhere to wash your hands before you eat. 
Stay Alert
Kids on the street get suspiciously close and when you are not watching out for them; bikes carts and who knows what else are whizzing past. It also seemed that bikes don't have horns - all of the kids just made weird noses as they passed us. 

With so much to take in and like all markets, it's important to take a bag that fastens properly and try hold on to your stuff. I was pleased to have my Longchamp under my arm where I could see the zip and kept my camera around my neck with my hand on it at all times. 
Take It Slow
And one last thing to know before visiting the souks; they're absolutely amazing but very overwhelming. Remember to go slowly so you can take in all the sights and smells and get a proper experience! 

*Big thanks to Visit Morocco for inviting me along on this trip
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